Is journalism in crisis?

With the decline of newspapers, it is important to encourage and nourish independent journalism and media.

Newspaper Company Stock Prices Show Signs They May Have Bottomed Out
Print newspaper circulation in the United States dropped by 30 per cent between 2007 to 2009 [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Journalism is in crisis!

It’s a cry you hear often from journalists in the West, and it’s easy to see why.

  • A 2010 study in the UK estimated that between 15,000 to 20,000 journalist had lost their jobs since 2001, and the cuts have continued over the last two years.
  • In the UK, the cuts have not just been at newspapers as the BBC has been forced to cut thousands of staff, many of them in its news departments. Its funding has been frozen and it has had to absorb the costs of funding World Service, which used to be funded directly by the British government.
  • A 2010 study found that between 2007 to 2009, newspaper circulation dropped precipitously in many developed countries, including down by 20 per cent in Greece, 18 per cent in Japan, 17 per cent in Canada and most dramatically by 25 per cent in the UK and a staggering 30 per cent in the US.
  • A recent report by the professional networking site, LinkedIn, found that of 30 industries, employment in the US decreased most in newspapers during the recession.

Paradoxically, while newspaper circulation might be down in the developed world, audiences are up. Jack Matthew, Chief Executive Officer for Australia-based Fairfax Metro Media, said over the last five years that although print readers are declining, “thanks to digital media, the overall audience grew 30 per cent over the past five years”.

 Listening Post – US newspaper industry

The most recent State of the News Media report found in the US that audiences grew for every news platform in 2011 except newspapers. TV, radio and news website audiences were all up, with online audiences growing by 17.2 per cent.

Audiences are growing online. Advertising is growing, but journalism isn’t necessarily taking advantage of that growth market. The bulk of the growth in digital advertising has benefited search engines, such as Google, and more recently social networks. In 2011, advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn increased by 75 per cent in the UK, increasing eight-fold since 2008, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau.

Journalism itself isn’t in crisis in the developed world, but the business of journalism definitely is. A report by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found in the US that for every dollar that newspapers have gained in digital revenue, they have lost $7 in print revenue. One executive interviewed for the study said, “There’s no doubt we’re going out of business right now.”

The future is digital, but print journalism has to reinvent its business if it wants to have the resources to continue to provide the news, sport and other information that are vital to communities and democracies. This is as true in the Global South as the Global North. The wave of disruption crashing over the US and European newspaper industries is spreading and nowhere will be immune.

It’s one of the reasons that I’ve just joined the Media Development Loan Fund, a mission-driven investment fund for independent news outlets in countries with a history of media oppression. It provides low-cost capital and business assistance to help news media become financially sustainable in places where the press isn’t free. MDLF is launching the Knowledge Bridge project, to help independent news outlets in countries like Nepal and Guatemala make the digital transition.

I want to make sure that news organisations don’t just do good but do well. Financially weak journalism institutions are easily pressured by governments and business interests to toe the party line. There is a huge opportunity and challenge to help independent news businesses serving the vast majority of the world’s populations to thrive in the digital future.

Newspapers might be in decline in the developed world, but elsewhere, in many areas where MDLF works, newspapers are still booming. Newspaper circulation and advertising revenue have been rising across South America, Africa and Asia. A recent report by the Economist showed circulation up 5 per cent in South America, up 13 per cent in Asia and up a stunning 30 per cent in Africa.

However, news organisations cannot become complacent, focusing only on protecting their profitable broadcast or newspaper businesses in the face of the digital revolution. This is a time for experimentation and innovation. Technology, especially the mobile revolution, is spreading rapidly around the world and news media need to take advantage of it.

Social networking is booming in the rapidly developing economies of Asia and Latin America. Last year, the use of Facebook exploded in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia as well as Chile, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela.

The mobile revolution is fundamentally remaking not only communications but also the economies of rapidly rising African countries. It is estimated that transactions accounting for 25 per cent of Kenya’s GDP are conducted via MPESA, a mobile payments system. In Africa, fixed-line internet use is still growing slowly, but mobile data use is expanding rapidly. While Vodafone estimates that by 2015 there will still only be 3.9m fixed line broadband users in sub-Saharan Africa, there will be 435.1m mobile broadband users, double the figure from 2011.

Digital and mobile technologies open up huge opportunities to distribute news and information to a wider audience and can be a driving force for social and political change. But as we’ve seen in developed countries, they can also disrupt the business models that have supported journalism for decades.

In the countries where MDLF works, the stakes in whether news organisations successfully navigate the digital transition are much higher than in the West. If independent media go out of business in places like Russia or Zimbabwe, reliable news disappears as outlets supporting – and supported by – governments or oligarchs take over. That’s why it’s time for me to take on a new challenge: to help independent media stay independent in a digital world.

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web.

Follow him on Twitter: @kevglobal